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Geology Isn’t Rocks

Rocky Planet iconRocky Planet
By Erik Klemetti
Aug 28, 2019 9:00 AMNov 19, 2019 3:22 AM
USGS geologist measuring the temperature of a fissure prior to the 2018 eruption at Kīlauea in Hawaii. (Credit: USGS/HVO)


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So, first off, I apologize for the clickbait headline, but don’t worry, there actually is a payoff here. What I’m going to say is 100% true. Geology isn’t just a pile of rocks, no matter what you might think. Sure, there are rocks involved … but “geo” doesn’t mean rocks. It means Earth, so when we talk about geology, we’re talking about the our planet — and our planet is more than rocks.

Don’t get me wrong. I love rocks. They’re tiny (and really huge) packets of history. They are time capsules left by our home planet for us to figure out. They are a greatest hits and deep dive into the discography of the solar system. Incomplete, sure, but captivating, intriguing, born long before us and existing well after we will.

What do I mean that geology isn’t rocks? I think we need to change how we all think about geology. Certain famous scientists and TV shows liken geology to stamp collecting (or not even a “real science”). This is, of course, nonsense, but it is the perception. Geologists (and paleontologists) go out and find rocks, minerals, fossils, slap a label on them and cache them away in museums or dusty drawers. It is born out of a Victorian idea of the discipline.

However, the last time I checked, it isn’t 1875. Geology has changed a lot since the time of cataloging and description. What is the modern science of geology?

It is all sciences: If you become a geologist or even take geology class, you’ll quickly find out that to think about the discipline, you need to think synthetically. Physics? Yes. Chemistry? Sure. Biology? Of course. Anthropology? Definitely. Archeology? Indeed. Meteorology? Yup. Climatology? You bet. Astronomy? Just you wait!

A microbial mat growing in Norris Geyser basin at Yellowstone. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

My work in geology puts together an understanding of how crystals grow, how elements move around in magma, how radioactive elements decay, what happens to people and organisms in an eruption, what role eruptions have on climate … and more. Don’t believe the idea that geology isn’t a “real science”. It is really all sciences.

It is about process: The modern field of geology explores how the planet (and beyond) works. That means that geologists of all flavor study what are the processes that shape the interior and exterior of the Earth. How are rivers carving the landscape? What happens under a volcano before it erupts? How do glaciers respond to a changing climate? How did tectonics influence evolution?

Calving ice from Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. NPS.

Geology is a field that studies our active world, sometimes by looking at what is happening currently and sometimes looks at the rock record to see how our active processes are preserved. Sure, we can tell you that the rock is a sandstone, but what drives us is thinking about what was happening to form the sandstone.

It will help us solve our problems: First things first: geology is the source of some of our biggest challenges. Extraction of oil, natural gas, coal — the fossil fuels — is rooted in geology since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Climate change caused by us humans starts with geologic processes. That being said, geology can help solve some of these issues.

Krafla Geothermal Power Station in Iceland. Wikimedia Commons.

Geothermal energy from volcanoes might be a “clean” energy that can power our society. Rocks can be used to store carbon from our atmosphere. Add on the fact that the raw materials needed for a decarbonized society come from the rocks of the planet, geology will help lead the way.

It tells us about what the future might be like: So many events on Earth that impact humans come from geologic processes: volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, landslides amongst many more. By studying the active processes and the rock record, we can help better protect our cities, our farms, our infrastructure, from being destroyed.

Flooding in Louisiana during 2018. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

We can look at recurrence intervals to assess the potential for these hazards in different areas. Looking at volcanic deposits can be used to map out how future eruptions might unfold. We can look at the record of changing climate in the past to understand what our planet might be like as it warms. This all leads to better planning for future disasters.

The history of the humanity has been strongly influenced by geologic processes and will continue to be so far into the future. Fundamental understanding of what is recorded in rocks will guide how society develops and adapts to the future. Geology is a vibrant field that tries to understand Earth, past, present and future. It is way more than just rocks.

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